How Should a Mom React When a 10-Year-Old Calls Her a Bitch?

'Parenthood' episode on defiance strikes a chord

Beth Arky

This week’s Parenthood took aim at one of the toughest challenges for all parents: how to effectively handle a defiant child. But the blow-up between Max and mom Kristina, who responded in rage to being called a “bitch” by her 10-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, hit home especially for those with kids on the autism spectrum. The episode was as much about parents managing their own emotions as it was about trying to manage their volatile children.

The episode began with Kristina, stressed over trying to pack up for her father-in-law Zeek’s forced family road trip, yelling time and again to Max to turn down and then turn off his blaring video game, to no avail. Finally, she stomped in from the other room and switched off the TV midgame. Not surprisingly, Max got angry, throwing pillows at her and ultimately calling her a bitch. In fact, given that Max hurt his cousin Jabar in a fit of rage in a previous episode, one might have expected a much more explosive meltdown. Still, Kristina, furious and flustered, threatened: “There’ll be a punishment!” Max, seeing her uncertainty, taunted her on her habit of not following through, anyway.

Kristina, desperate to regain her authority, declared that Max would not be going on the trip but would stay home with her and infant sister Nora.

It seemed that nothing would sway Kristina, and for much of the episode, nothing did—not husband Adam’s pleas to relent to keep the peace with his drill-sergeant of a dad, not Max’s rants. She didn’t even crack when, in an effort to appease her and earn back the trip, Max cleaned up his room without being asked (!). But when he upped the ante, preparing dinner and even touching her on the shoulder, these rare, unexpected gestures clearly shook her resolve. After a conversation with Max left her satisfied that he’d learned his lesson and wouldn’t be calling her names anymore, the punishment was lifted and they were off to join the rest of the clan.

Over on Parenthood‘s The Experts Speak page, Dr. Roy Q. Sanders, medical director of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, wrote that Kristina could have had a better result had she followed “the essentials to effectively dealing with any child who is behaving inappropriately, and especially for those children diagnosed with ASD,” namely “minimal engagement, calm assessment, no immediate punishment or discussion, maintain control.” While “no parent is ever going to be able to maintain emotional control all of the time,” he notes, “it’s important to practice recognizing our own emotional states while we are parenting. This allows for corrective responses in our own behaviors, which in turn allows us to diffuse potentially explosive interactions and to end the ‘drama’ quickly.”

Parents were quick to note that remaining calm sometimes takes a superhuman effort.

“All this talk about consistency, boundaries and perfect ways of handling things works most days,” one commenter . “But we’re people, not clinicians, and sometimes we want the video game off without the meltdown! And so sometimes we blurt out punishments in a reaction that punishes us, too. It’s real life, when you’re living in a spectrum world.”

And then there’s the possibility, as Landon Bryce posits at thAutcast, that Kristina provoked Max and the whole brouhaha because she was desperate to avoid the tortured family pilgrimage to celebrate Grandma Braverman’s 86th birthday. “I kind of love that Kristina did a genuinely bad thing in this episode,” writes Bryce, a teacher, “because I’ve seen tons of parents and especially teachers do exactly the same thing in real life, and do it as Kristina did it—completely unconsciously.

“Feeling overwhelmed?” he writes. “Not up to going on a horrible family trip to visit your obnoxious father-in-law’s even more obnoxious mother? Think it would probably be easier on your Aspie kid to just stay home? Provoke a tantrum by acting exactly the way all those expensive professionals tell you not to! Generate misbehavior that must be punished, and quickly blurt out that the child’s punishment must be not to go on the awful trip and that you must stay home instead and spend some time alone with your baby.”

Parents were sympathetic to Kristina for a variety of reasons. “I really liked that she held her ground,” said Alysia, mom to a 5-year-old son on the spectrum, “but softened when she knew she had gotten through to Max. Sometimes as parents we get wedded to the punishment, and not the reason for the punishment—for all kids. Her scenes with Max were incredibly touching.” 

“I think Kristina blurted out the punishment in the heat of the moment,” added the mom of an 11-year-old son with AS, “not realizing at the time what enormous consequences it would have. I probably would have warned Max by getting right in his face, to make sure he was really processing what I was saying—that if he didn’t turn it off, I would.” Those familiar with sensory processing issues know she was alluding to the auditory processing difficulties common to many on the spectrum, which may have made it challenging for Max to hear her, let alone respond, at least initially. 

“Then if I had blurted out an unrealistic punishment,” she said, “I would have admitted to my son that we all make mistakes sometimes, and that I’ve rethought the punishment, and it would probably be something like taking the video game away for a few days.” She also admitted to being quite familiar with the kind of idle threats Kristina dishes out. “Guilty! I’m the worst when it comes to following through on things, however hard I work at it. It’s so much easier, after all, to just let things slide…and then of course you’ll have the kid from hell when he gets older.”

The mom of an 18-year-old who received his AS diagnosis at 8 found the Max-Kristina storyline unsatisfying. “Max got over it way too fast. No kid, let alone an ASD kid, would be so solicitous just because he called his mom a bitch,” she said. “She was a bitch. Her consequence for his behavior was way over the top, and as an Aspie, he would not have figured it out and accommodated to her ‘crazy’—not at his age. Maybe in five or ten years.”

Flying out to meet the family was even less realistic, in her book. Would Kristina really want to send Max the message “that because he did a few nice things, it’s all okay and erases the other stuff?” she asked. “She’s unlikely to do that, especially at $500, and it would besuch bad parenting, especially for an Aspie.”

Behaviorists would agree with this mom that reconsidering the punishment, however tempting, would be a mistake. Once caregivers announce a consequence, they must follow through. To waffle will only send mixed signals, basically telling kids that mom and dad are indecisive—and therefore easy to manipulate.

It’s also worth noting that Kristina floundered in part because she didn’t have a behavioral plan in place. It would be understandable; it’s been months since Max’s in-home behavioral therapist Gaby’s abrupt departure, and Kristina now has a newborn demanding her focus. But posted house rules would have given her and Adam a go-to list of expected behaviors and consequences that Max understood. In this situation, Kristina would have known how to handle the noncompliance and cursing. Such plans empower parents to be calmer more of the time.

The whole idea of canceling a road trip to visit grandma as a punishment doesn’t track, adds the 18-year-old’s mom: “Really, would Max want to travel all that way in a cramped car to see a nasty old lady? The whole thing reeked of fantasy; all the autism families I know find family gatherings bordering on torture.”

Another mom to a 10-year-old Aspie, agreed. “I don’t think the punishment was appropriate,” she said, “but that’s colored by the fact that staying home would be a treat for my kid.” As for Kristina’s edict, she said, “I’d be more likely to center punishment around the game. I think she wanted something immediate so she could follow through right then, rather than take a chance on forgetting the punishment like Max said she did before.”

While Kristina’s parenting performance got mixed reviews, Adam scored major points. He initially disgreed with Kristina’s punishment and hoped she’d recant to keep the peace with his difficult father. But when it was Kristina’s turn to speak, Adam listened calmly and agreed that she had to follow through. Later, when his indignant dad corned him in a truck stop rest room, going so far as to tell Adam to “put his foot down” with Kristina, Adam told him, in the nicest way possible, to butt out of his family’s business.

Here Adam gets props for compromising to stay on the same page with Kristina, Parenting 101 for those with children on the spectrum and with other diagnoses causing disruptive behavior. By standing up to the judgmental Zeek, he further showed he has his partner’s back. As much as kids will push the boundaries, it’s those consistent boundaries—enforced by calm parents working together—that make them feel safest, and happiest, of all.

Dyslexia Diagnosis & Treatment By Mayo Clinic Staff

Childhood apraxia of speech by Mayo Clinic Staff

What Are Some of the Causes of Aggression in Children? By Raul Silva, MD

How to Calm a Child with Autism By Lisa Jo Rudy

How Autistic Meltdowns Differ from Ordinary Temper Tantrums By Lisa Jo Rudy 

5 Simple Ways to Make Life Easier for Your Sensitive Kid By Lindsey Biel

Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children By Keath Low

Sensory Integration by  Autism Research Institute

ADHD or Autism? By WebMD

Learning Disabilities: What Parents Need To Know by American Academy of Pediatrics

Anxiety disorders by Mayo Clinic Staff

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) by Mayo Clinic Staff